The dramatic developments surrounding the independence referendum in Catalonia, as well as the plebiscite for the self-determination of Iraqi Kurds, have once again raised the issue of the lack of clear criteria in international practice for allowing the self-determination of nations and territories. This creates a breeding ground for double standards and speculative political maneuvers. And although Catalan separatism has a long and unique history, an assessment of current events shows that there are links to other regional crises including in the Balkans, where the double standards and geopolitical games have become fully apparent.
Richard Haass, president of the influential US Council on Foreign Relations, recently took an active part in discussions on these issues. In an article published on the Project Syndicate website on 29 September, four days after the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and two days before the referendum in Catalonia, Haass writes that in today’s world, new statehood depends largely on recognition by other states. He then goes on to try to formulate his own set of standards that he believes should be applied in such situations. There are five of these ‘Haass standards’ (read: the Council on Foreign Relations’ standards): the existence of historical foundations that indicate “a clear collective identity for the people in question”; the existence of convincing arguments proving that “the status quo is imposing a large political, physical, and economic price” on the population; a clear indication by the population that “it strongly favors a new and separate political status”; an indication that the new state will be “viable”; and, finally, that secession will not “jeopardize the viability of the rump state or the security of neighboring states”.
If you look at former Yugoslavia in terms of these rules, then it is easy to see the West’s extreme haste in recognizing the independence of a number of Yugoslav republics, as well as the Serbian province of Kosovo. Among other things, there would have been no “large political, physical, and economic price” should Kosovo have kept its status after 1999 as a territory under the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo with broad powers.
There are serious issues in assessing the “collective identity” of Kosovo Albanians, whom Albanian experts themselves and the leaders of the Albanian nationalist movement have traditionally regarded as part of the Albanian ethnic group since the activities of the League of Prizren from 1878-1881, an ethnic group that is currently exercising its self-determination as part of the Republic of Albania. Indeed, the level of “collective identity” of Bosnian Muslims and even of Montenegrins is historically inferior to that of Catalans and even more so of Kurds.